Paul Copley: Yorkshire-born actor who appeared in Coronation Street and Emmerdale - as well as voicing Morrisons adverts

Denby Dale-born actor Paul Copley may have stopped touring with live productions as he approaches 79 but, as he tells Phil Penfold, he is still embracing new parts.

Love can happen in the strangest of places. And Paul Copley’s account of meeting his wife pretty much tops any other tale. Denby Dale-born Copley is the actor whose instantly recognisable voice has persuaded viewers to savour the delights of Morrisons supermarkets for more decades than he cares to remember, and whose persuasive tones have been turned to many other products and programmes.

He’s been a stalwart of Emmerdale and Coronation Street, of Hornblower and Last Tango in Halifax, of King Street Junior and The Archers.

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But it was early in his career that he found himself at the original Leeds Playhouse, and cast in a production of Wedekind’s Lulu. Playing opposite him was a young lady called Natasha Pyne. “I cannot say that it was that classic cliché of ‘love at first sight’, but there was indeed an attraction from the start. Helped by the fact that the director, Peter Barnes, required me to get entangled and enveloped by her skirts. It would have been very rude, after that, not to have asked her for a sociable drink after that first rehearsal.” The couple – who now live in London – celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year.

Paul Copley has had a stellar career.  ©2015 Carnival Film & Television, photo by Nick BriggsPaul Copley has had a stellar career.  ©2015 Carnival Film & Television, photo by Nick Briggs
Paul Copley has had a stellar career. ©2015 Carnival Film & Television, photo by Nick Briggs

Copley is one of those actors who seem never to have stopped working. Even today, as he approaches his 79th birthday (in November), he admits that he still gets “very itchy” if he hasn’t got something to record, to act in, or to plan.

“I seem to have cornered the current market in oddball old geezers. Who’s complaining?” He’s currently appearing in the latest series of All Creatures Great and Small playing, well, yes, a “crusty old geezer”, called Ned Clough.

“Ned’s very much a man of the land, an agricultural labourer, and he’s probably earned his living out in all weathers, probably as something like a drystone waller. Anyway, he’s called in the vet because of a problem with a pet, a very small pet. My scenes were filmed in and around Pateley Bridge. But I was allowed to really release my native accent, to the point where I said to our director ‘Look, is this going to be a bit strong, will people truly understand what I’m saying?’, and he just said, ‘Go for it’, which was really wonderful. I’m one of those people who loves dialect, and accent, and all the strange and lovely words that are special and individual to all sorts of places and locations.

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“My late Uncle Jack was an electrician, and when I was a lad I used to help out with his business around Denby Dale, where I was born and raised, and it was wonderful to find so many localised words for different items and places. It’s tragic to find that they seem to be dying out. It’s not just Yorkshire – I trained up in Newcastle in the late Sixties, and I sometimes hadn’t a clue what they were talking about.

English actress Natasha Pyne marries actor Paul Copley, UK, 18th July 1972. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)English actress Natasha Pyne marries actor Paul Copley, UK, 18th July 1972. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
English actress Natasha Pyne marries actor Paul Copley, UK, 18th July 1972. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Looking back, I don’t think that I’ve ever strayed that far from my own accent. I once played an elderly general – I must have been all of 22 or 23 – in a play called Belcher’s Luck. Funnily enough, the author was the much-missed David Mercer, who came from Wakefield, and the general was frightfully plummy. I didn’t warm to that role at all.

“Another time, at the Playhouse, we were doing a stage version of Wind in the Willows, and the chap playing Toad told me that, if I wanted to get on in the business, I’d better drop or at least soften, the Yorkshire accent pretty quickly. Natasha heard about that, and she told me ‘If you do, you’d be a fool!’, and it seems to have stood me in pretty good stead ever since.”

The only thing that Copley has phased out of his life is touring with live productions. “It all got just a little bit too much, as the years went by,” he says. “Yes, I miss the productions, but I don’t miss being in Aberdeen one week, then Bournemouth the next, Leeds after that, and then Norwich. It does knock the stuffing out of you. And I don’t miss living out of a suitcase, nor some of the digs.

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“I vividly remember a tour we did of Lear, and one of the dates was in Belfast. I was playing the Fool to Sir Anthony Quayle’s King. The landlady was a delightful lady, and she was a superb cook, and had a charming little dog. The problem was my bedroom, where, when it rained, the water cascaded down the walls. If I hadn’t moved somewhere else, I would have finished the week with pneumonia.”

That apart, he can recall some wonderful times when he was on location for long-running series like Hornblower. “Now that”, he says, “was just magical. We filmed all over the place – a lot of it was in the Ukraine, but I dread to think what might have happened to some of our locations since then. Just awful. Back then, when we had scenes at sea, the coastal authorities let us do pretty much what we liked. Carte blanche. The producers loved the freedom.”

Despite his many years of association with Downton Abbey (in which Copley played Albert Mason) he has never ever been on one of the meet and greet fan junkets overseas. “They had a celebration once, in New York and the whole lot of us were invited to go over,” he recalls. “It sounded pretty good to me, but then another offer of work here at home came in, so I took that, instead. Would I prefer working to celebrating? On balance, yes, I would.”

Archers fans will know him as Leonard Berry, the new love in the life of farming matriarch Jill Archer. “I love doing it,” he admits. “I’m a regular but somewhat in the background, Leonard pops out when he’s needed – and at the moment he gets mentioned as being indoors and ‘waiting for his tea’. I love radio work – there’s a whole new technique to it, even turning over the page of a script needs a particular skill, and – is it me? – the paper seems to make a lot more noise these days. Or maybe the microphones are just getting better and better?

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“The other radio I loved was playing the dad to Tom Wrigglesworth, the Sheffield comedian, in his long-running series. Such a lot of fun. And yes, I did actually meet Tom’s real dad, who is a real character in his own right – I only hope that I did the gentleman full justice!”

Copley’s love of performance began in Denby Dale, and then at Penistone Grammar School. “My whole family seemed to be involved in amateur dramatics. Dad was really enthusiastic, I’d get roped in to paint the scenery, Uncle Jack did the lighting, and so on. Do I remember my first line? Indeed I do. Just one, in a production of Twelfth Night. I played Curio, and I had to say, ‘Did you go hunt, my Lord?’, and that was it.”

He laments that the pandemic reined in a lot of work. “We’d all be meeting up somewhere, and it was always very convivial – actors have a lot to talk about. Now I seem to have to retreat upstairs, to my makeshift studio, and I must pray that something en route to Heathrow doesn’t go over! But I’ve also very much enjoyed some upcoming work for Channel 4, and there’s also a short film coming out where I’m playing an elderly farmer, from the Peak District.”

There’s a short pause, and then Copley says with a laugh: “You’d better know that it’s called Ticker, and in it, I get my first gay kiss, after five decades in the business.

“Acting, you know, is never ever predictable – or dull!”